“There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute.”
Publicity stunts are not new. The quote, attributed to lovable 19th century con man and circus owner, P.T. Barnum, reflected his philosophy of doing everything he could to put money into his own pocket. In pre-circus days, he ran a New York museum and, in order to sell ever more tickets, he staged outrageous stunts, including the exhibition of a fabricated creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish that Barnum proclaimed was a real mermaid, and a carved gypsum giant that he claimed was a fossilized man. He had stolen the idea from a chap named George Hull who had first staged an exhibition of a carved statue that he touted as the fossilized remains of a giant man from prehistory. Apparently, people bought all this – for a while.
Cut to 20th century America. Hollywood’s spin on the publicity stunt was the 1997 movie Wag the Dog. In the film, a has been film director (Dustin Hoffman) and a ruthless White House spin doctor (Robert De Niro) stage a fake war in Albania, complete with footage shot on sound stages and moving theme songs. The point? To draw election year attention away from a presidential sex scandal, wherein it seemed the Prez may have gotten naughty with a minor in the Oval Office. The war is staged to strike home the “reality” of war. At one point, chased by the CIA (who are trying to uncover the presidential wrongdoings) and trying to make a convincing hero out of a convicted rapist (played deliciously by Woody Harrelson), Dustin Hoffman has a fit and shouts, “This war isn’t over ‘til I say it’s over. This is my picture.” So convincing is the scheme that when Woody Harrelson’s character dies in a plane crash, he is buried with full military honors. And the President gets re-elected.
So history and fiction have plenty of crazy examples of publicity stunts gone crazy. But there have been times in recent history when the lines reality was stranger than fiction, when stunts by clever marketers, spin-doctors or publicists were cooked up to garner attention from the world’s media, with great success. These are 10 of the biggest or most successful publicity stunts ever to have been pulled off.
Running a small business is tough and competitive at the best of times. That’s why Shobha, a New York City hair removal salon, decided to employ Improv Everywhere Cooperative to stage a rather daring little stunt. In January, models dressed in hot pants emblazoned with “Shobha” on the backside strolled the streets and subway stations. What’s the most shocking thing? That anyone would walk around frigid New York in hot pants in January. Guess that’s the point.
9. Calendar Girls
When Yorkshireman John Baker died of lymphoma in July of 1998, his wife Angela got together with her friends in the Women’s Institute to stage an outrageous money raising stunt. The women, between 45 and 65, posed in various states of undress on a calendar to raise funds for cancer research. Self-published and released in April of 1999, the calendar was an immediate success, selling out its first printing in a week. All in all, the calendar raised nearly $750,000. A fictionalized account of the story was told in the 2003 film Calendar Girls, with Helen Mirren playing Angela Baker and Julie Walters as her sidekick.
8. Dog Do in the Mail
Located in the outskirts of Madrid, the Spanish city of Brunete had a problem. Put tastefully, dog walkers on the city streets weren’t cleaning up after their precious little (or big) pooches. So, twenty volunteers followed dog walkers and, literally, collected the goods. So, what happened then? The offending items were mailed to the owners from the city’s “Lost and Found Department”. Some astonished owners were pictured with the packages. The city also got someone to drag around a plastic “pile” that was put in the path of dog walkers. Atop the pile was a sign saying “Don’t leave me behind”. The result? A 70% decrease in the “problem”.
7. The North Pole is Melting
Notably strident organisation Greenpeace UK put Jim Carter (Carson from “Downton Abbey) all over social media with a simple viral video. A somber Santa Claus, with a straggly beard, reports that his home, the North Pole, is melting. He is standing alone in a dark cellar, with the sound of dripping water. He reports the “bad tidings”: Due to the disruption of the melting ice, he and the elves were unable to work. He is very sorry, but he might have to cancel Christmas. The video went viral and millions added their names to the “Stop the Melt” petition, including Madonna and Paul McCartney.
6. Submarine in the Streets of Milan
Astonished residents in landlocked Milan, Italy awoke to an extraordinary scene: A submarine appeared to be breaking through the street paving. Sailors climbed down from the tower into the arms of emergency services personnel. It was a bold stunt. In the night, employees of IT Europ Assist, an Italian insurance company, had constructed the scene, submarine, rubble and all, to promote its “Protect Your Life” campaign. Who said insurance was boring?
Where to start? PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) excels at concocting and pulling off outrageous publicity stunts. They specialize in stunts that have been known to make their opposition really angry. From nude celebrities to stunts staged near Colonel Sanders’ grave (they really hate KFC), PETA is high profile and controversial. Take the human barbecue. Staged in a busy Nashville Street, it is an all American scene: A summer barbecue. The only thing is, the lunch is a human basted in barbecue sauce, laid out on a grill and surrounded by fake flames. People were asked to spray paint the victim so that it would look as if she were cooking. Perhaps PETA miscalculated, though; most of the attention seemed to be garnered by the naked woman laid out on the spit, with the message getting a bit lost.
4. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 film that was supposedly about three student filmmakers who were shooting a documentary about a local menacing legend, the Blair Witch. It was presented as a documentary – a pretty formulaic horror movie these days, but an entirely revolutionary curveball at the time. The back story was that the three students had disappeared without a trace. Vanished into thin air. A year before the movie’s release, the website featured fake police reports and staged interviews with complaining locals. According to the film, the only thing left of the missing filmmakers, their “recovered” footage, showed the three in dark and threatening situations. And then suddenly they are gone. Cut to black. The buzz for the film was due, in large part, to the fact that many believed this was true and an impassioned is it? / isn’t it? debate raged. In any event, it received good critical reviews and earned an incredible $248 million worldwide.
3. Hold Your Wee for Wii
Some bright spark at Sacramento radio station KDND had a great idea for a publicity stunt. They would hold a contest to see who could drink the most water without “going” – “Hold Your Wee for Wii”. 18 people entered the contest, hoping to win the prize, a Nintendo Wii Gaming System. Unfortunately, it all took a sordid turn when a 28 year old mother died of water intoxication and what happened next is no surprise. Her husband filed a wrongful death suit against the station and won $16.5 million. Presumably the innovative marketer who came up with the idea is no longer working there, or anywhere else…
2. Extreme Scrabble
In 2008, Scrabble decided to celebrated the 60th anniversary of the beloved game with a series of stunts called “Extreme Scrabble”. Scrabble players were seen playing the game in extreme circumstances. The most popular in the series showed Scrabble players happily playing the game in the air, while parachuting down to earth.
1. Strato Red Bull
We know Red Bull is about getting a rush, but this stunt is outrageous. In October of 2012, they hired skydiver Felix Baumgartner to fly a helium balloon 39 km’s (that’s 24 miles) into the stratosphere. What next? Dressed in a pressure suit, he jumped and went into free fall, eventually using a parachute to get back to earth. Apparently he broke through the speed of sound barrier. The sound was recorded. No repeat performance is planned.